Commentary: Why HUD Is Far From Turning Around

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

I very much enjoyed reading your recent article “Powered by Mission.” In particular, I smiled when I read the information about NASA’s approach aimed at “never surprising our first-line supervisors.” This approach is something that the agency I work for—the Housing and Urban Development—should model, because it is (1) business-smart and (2) a tangible concrete way to show dignity and respect for our staff.

I believe that the more first-line supervisors know about changes and agency initiatives, the better they can help their teams and accomplish the agency mission. Nobody benefits from being blindfolded to certain aspects of the operation except people who “play small.” In public service, we need to intrinsically “play big.”

If someone were to ask “What is HUD doing today?” we should be able to answer that question with something other than “I don’t have a clue.”

I wanted to also let you know that one thing in your article did not ring true for me. Frankly, from where I sit I do not understand how, at a time when HUD has had a one-year cliff-like 10.8 percent drop in the Employee Viewpoint Survey, anybody could say that things are finally “turning around.”

The reality for those of us working for HUD is that during the last two years we have been the worst of it and things are not looking up. In fact, things are looking so bad that people are retiring and resigning in numbers never before seen. These are people who have finally had enough.

Why is this happening? For one, the top two or three highest levels of management do not inform their lower level managers of anything the agency is working on and managers find out more information from their bargaining unit employees than from their superiors. What little the union is told we share immediately with our employees and many times we even add the managers to our email distributions so that they can be aware of changes.

Case in point: When the agency rolled out an initiative to close 16 small offices, the unions were informed two hours before the rest of the staff (supervisors and bargaining unit members). Even the heads of those offices slated to be closed didn’t know about it in advance.

And when the agency rolled out an initiative to close large multifamily (affordable) housing offices, division managers of those closing offices and unions were informed at the same time as all the HUD employees during a webcast that then Deputy Secretary Maurice Jones held.

Was this a smart strategy? No, I do not think so. But it was definitely a “shock” strategy, and the waves have rippled large and high within the agency since—like a tsunami that destroys everything in its path.

This to say that our situation at HUD is very disturbing from many levels, but these are the most damaging in my opinion:

  • Lack of information and shoot-from-the-hip, disruptive initiatives
  • Complete disregard for employees (many employees describe HUD as having a “plantation” management style
  • Employees are driven to resign, retire or go to their graves due to increasing workloads and high retirement rates without succession planning

The “on the front lines” reality is that HUD is far, far, very far away from turning around. I think a better analogy would be that HUD has fallen off the cliff and nobody in Congress cares about the freefall. If they did, then someone should be scheduling some hearings like the ones for the Homeland Security Department on Dec. 12, as you mentioned in your article.

Liz McDargh is president of National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1450.

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